Guantanamo trials to begin

Times Staff Writer

Senior U.S. military officers will be scrambled from around the world this weekend for jury duty at Guantanamo Bay in the Pentagon’s first war-crimes trial since World War II.

In a victory for the Bush administration in its protracted quest to prosecute terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo, a federal judge in Washington on Thursday rejected defense attorneys’ appeals to halt the trial of Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, and it will get underway Monday.

Hamdan’s lawyers had argued before both U.S. District Judge James Robertson and the military judge hearing pretrial motions at Guantanamo, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, that the trial should be delayed until civilian judges weighed the constitutionality of the tribunal’s rules and procedures.


Robertson said that those challenges could be brought during or after the trial and that he would respect “the balance struck by Congress” when it created the war-crimes tribunal with the 2006 Military Commissions Act.

Allred rejected defense contentions that Hamdan was entitled to constitutional protections beyond the right of habeas corpus upheld June 12 by the Supreme Court.

Hamdan will be the first from among 265 Guantanamo prisoners to be tried on terrorism charges, and his appearance before Allred and a panel of at least seven senior officers will allow the Bush administration to demonstrate whether the tribunal works and can produce convictions.

Robertson’s refusal to postpone the trial also allows the Republican administration to put some terrorism suspects on trial before the presidential election. The trials of Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr and five men facing death-penalty charges for their alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are expected to begin before November.

If Hamdan were convicted and sentenced and the Sept. 11 defendants, including confessed mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were tried this fall, it could be more difficult for the next administration to dismantle a judicial system that keeps the reputed terrorists off U.S. soil.

(Both presumptive presidential nominees, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have said they want to close Guantanamo.)

Pretrial proceedings underway at Guantanamo have tended to expose flaws in the Pentagon’s system for detaining, interrogating and trying foreign terrorism suspects.

Earlier this week, Khadr’s lawyers released video excerpts from a 2003 interrogation of the 16-year-old in which he wept and begged for help. In the video, which Pentagon officials fought to keep out of the public eye, Khadr also tells his Canadian interrogator that he was mistreated in U.S. custody and removes his shirt to show wounds he said hadn’t healed.

Khadr’s trial is set for October, but his military defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler, has been pressing for his now-21-year-old client to be released or transferred to Canada, where he could be tried in a legal system that observed international covenants on the treatment of child soldiers.

The war-crimes court has been under fire from European allies and human rights advocates since its creation. Critics lament its lack of due process and the admissibility, if the military judge allows, of hearsay and coerced evidence.

The tribunal, known as the Office of Military Commissions, has also weathered accusations of political corruption, including the plea bargain that freed Australian detainee David Hicks last year after his nation’s prime minister appealed to the White House.

In addition, Bush loyalists within the military and judicial hierarchies have been accused of exercising what is known as unlawful command influence -- pulling rank -- in pressuring prosecutors to go after high-profile prisoners to impress voters.

Hamdan is charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism. The 38-year-old, who has been jailed at Guantanamo for more than six years, could get life imprisonment if convicted.

His lawyers have argued that their client was just a $200-a-month servant, not a committed jihadist in the loop on Al Qaeda plots.

Allred rejected motions filed by Hamdan’s lawyers claiming that the Constitution’s equal-protection clause would be violated if their client were tried in an untested judicial system.

Allred has yet to rule on the admissibility of evidence obtained by Guantanamo interrogators after Hamdan was subjected to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and sexual humiliation. The Yemeni prisoner testified this week about interrogation and detention practices he described as physically and psychologically abusive.

Human rights monitors criticized Robertson’s decision.

“It doesn’t make sense to conduct a trial under rules that are likely to be found unconstitutional later on,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of national security matters for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Proceeding with this trial now will only draw out a legal process that has taken far too long already and further discredit a system that has been a disgrace from the start.”